How to address fear of ending up with another alcoholic partner.
October 10, 2012 9:59 AM   Subscribe

How do you know if someone might drink more than you are comfortable with if you do not live together? Or am I still bruised from my previous relationship?

As someone who was previously in a relationship with an alcoholic (leading to classic trust issues, codependency...worked out mostly through individual therapy) how do I assess the following: 1) if I am merely hyper-aware of others' alcohol intake and worrying based on my own history and 2) how much my partner drinks alone at home?

My partner and I are considering moving in together. When we are together, my partner does not drink excessively very often at all. That does not concern me in the least. We both like to drink at times, socially and not socially. I am afraid that my partner might drink a lot more when alone at home.

I am fully aware that this is a fear of mine based on past experiences. However, I do not want to end up in a situation where we are living together and only then do I realize just how much my partner drinks. The situation we are in does not allow for any kind of trial "let's see how this goes" period; when we move in together, it is for good.

I am currently thinking my first question is the real issue here and I would love to throw out #2, but I am terrified of ending up in another codependent relationship. Looking back, I DO remember seeing signs that my ex-partner had a problem with alcohol. I do NOT see those signs with my current partner. Which leaves me wondering: Are there others signs?

A complicating factor is that, like a huge portion of the population, my partner likes alcohol. This is where I go fuzzy and go between feeling rational and irrational due to my fears.

I know there are no guarantees in life, but I don't want to ignore what I am afraid of. I would love to talk to my partner about this in a way that does make anyone feel accused, shamed, etc. Maybe that is what I should be focusing on.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total)
If I were in your partner's shoes, I would want you to be direct about it - "I have some twitches about alcohol due to past experiences, can we talk about your drinking patterns just to ease my mind?" I have had roommates and friends who have either been recovering alcoholics or people with past history like yours, and I'm happy to talk about my patterns in general and where my boundaries are regarding changing them to suit people.

I think if you make it clear that this is about you and your feelings, and not about suspicions or accusations directed at him, it'll go fine - and if he gets super defensive about it, well, then you know there's probably more work to be done before you live together.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:06 AM on October 10, 2012 [13 favorites]

And to elaborate, it'll be really helpful if you know where your own boundaries going in - like, is a beer or two with dinner going to be a problem for you? Having hard liquor in the cabinet? What about if he goes out with friends and comes home less-than-sober? It'll probably help him if you can say "X, Y, and Z are the things I really can't deal with - are those things you can forgo if we live together?"
posted by restless_nomad at 10:10 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Talk to your partner about this. Express your fears and concerns, talk about your past experiences and why you are worried about this. Try not to frame it as you accusing your partner of having a secret drinking problem. Presumably your partner knows about your past experiences -- if not, this is definitely a conversation you should have! Just make it a calm, rational discussion about your own personal feelings and not any suspicions.

I would say also discuss this with your therapist, if you're still in therapy.

And if you've been with your partner for a while around alcohol and he/she isn't showing any warning signs that you saw with your past partner, you're probably pretty safe. So just have the discussion. If your partner freaks out about it -- well, then you know there might be a problem.
posted by whitneyarner at 10:11 AM on October 10, 2012

I am afraid that my partner might drink a lot more when alone at home.

Look in his recycle bin.
posted by mhoye at 10:20 AM on October 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

If you're rooting through his trash for the truth, you have trust issues that need to be addressed too -- by which I mean, if you can't say, "how much do you drink when alone?" and get a straight answer that you fully believe, living together is probably a questionable idea.
posted by ellF at 10:48 AM on October 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't know if there are hard and fast signs. I love buying alcohol, and have a bar cabinet and a freezer filled with hard liquor. But I hate the taste of alcohol and can count the number of times I drank alcohol in the last 12 months on 1 hand, and I've only been actually drunk once or twice.

I would have the discussion. If he's evasive, uncomfortable, or defensive then I would proceed with caution.
posted by ethidda at 11:04 AM on October 10, 2012

This issue is as valid as any other issue with cohabitating. Bring it up as you would any other living partner requirement ("I really need people to keep quiet after 10pm, and I'm very uncomfortable with a lot of drinking in the house") instead of looking for clues.
posted by xingcat at 11:20 AM on October 10, 2012

I am afraid that my partner might drink a lot more when alone at home.

Why? Because it's a thing you're aware that people can do? Or because your partner demonstrates warning signs that imply he might drink a lot at home alone?

I feel like, if you guys are in a serious enough relationship that you're talking about cohabitation, you probably know whether he's an alcoholic or not. He'd be displaying some clue, even if it was just a blatantly excessive amount of empty bottles in his recycling bin or the like. (In other words you're noticing it when you toss in yesterday's paper, not rooting through and counting.)

How is he with alcohol when it's just the two of you at home? Does he "need" a drink after a hard day? Does he drink inappropriately early in the day? Do you open a bottle of wine and discover that he's finished the bottle before you're done with your first glass? Is he mainlining bourbon to the tune of a fresh bottle every couple days?
posted by Sara C. at 11:25 AM on October 10, 2012

How to address it? Head on.

Alcohol and substance use is one of those things where it helps to be on the same page in a relationship. So, you talk about it. It's one of those things that should come up when moving in together. Just like you'd talk about how clean you like to keep a house, who is responsible for keeping up with the bills and how will you divide them, etc.

Are you going to any alcoholic support groups? You are acting like this is a landmine issue which it really should not be. You're not going to put your toe into this and have the whole relationship blow up. I think you should examine that yourself. If it does blow up then it wasn't going to be the one for you anyway, right?

And, for the most part, people are on a spectrum of substance use. From the teetotaler who has never had a taste for it to the person who has a real problem abusing it. The vast majority of people can and do drink responsibly even if regularly. It's a problem if your loved ones say it is. Anytime I see a person drinking really fast with no initial ill effects, it makes my hairs stand up because I see that as a sign of an alcohol abuser or potential alcoholic. Which is what my Dad was. Most people don't just down three beers in the space of an hour. You know?

So, if your guy is a moderate drinker in your company, I doubt he is a secret, closet alcoholic. Why don't you trust yourself to see that? Or, what about his behavior makes you distrust your impression of reality? I think you should check back in with your therapist or a support group (even 1 session -- bring this issue up) would help you a lot. And then, just ask the guy: "Hey, I'm pretty sensitive about alcohol and here's the condensed story about my past – what are your experiences and how do you feel about it?"

Good luck!
posted by amanda at 11:42 AM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

What concerns me most is your comment that if you move in together, it HAS to be for good. I'm not sure how committed you are to that, or what your logistical situation is like, but I would really suggest re-evaluating that for your own good and the good of your relationship.

The thing is, if someone actually is a functioning alcoholic, he might be extremely good at hiding his drinking right now. Checking the recycling bin? If he's genuinely trying to hide something, wouldn't he throw those bottles out elsewhere else? Have a conversation? He might be able to discuss things with you in a seemingly open manner, knowing that squirreliness would be a pretty obvious giveaway. Not that you shouldn't have this conversation (I especially like restless_nomad's framing for it) - just don't use it as a be-all, end-all measure.

IF there is a problem, it might be years before it it became undeniably apparent. I don't think my mom fully groked my dad's alcoholism for quite some time into their marriage - and even then, I was 11 or so before it became an out-and-out, OBVIOUS problem to all of us. They were together for over 20 years before it finally forced them apart. I don't believe it's deliberately malicious, but alcoholics can be very good at manipulation and hiding their drinking so they can keep on doing it - and the more involved you become with one, the more you WANT to believe that there really isn't a problem.

Please don't take this as encouragement to be hyper-paranoid all the time - that way lies misery and wrecked relationships, and if you've been through a relationship with an alcoholic in the past I definitely agree with the folks encouraging you to continue working on the residual effects in therapy or Al-Anon. Just don't put too much stock in your ability to "tell" if someone is or not, don't set yourself up to have to monitor someone's drinking all the time ... and don't get yourself into a living situation you can't get out of if you need to. Most people aren't alcoholics, but if you're not yet able to support yourself if you do need to go back to living alone, maybe it's not quite time to be moving in with anybody.
posted by DingoMutt at 11:53 AM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just want to chime in and point out that checking the recycling can be misleading. For example, the recycling at my house will often be VERY full of empties. This is mostly because my wife and I are lazy and don't take the bottles out to the garage as often as we should, not because we drink to excess. Similarly, looking in our garage would make you assume we're constantly drunk, because we take our empties to the depot even more rarely than we bring the ones in the house out to the garage.

Instead of making assumptions based on what you see in his recycling bin, ask him straight up.

You also need to determine what you are and are not comfortable with and let him know that. I know some people with issues around alcohol for reasons similar to yours. In a few cases, their partners reduced their alcohol intake when the moved in together -- not because their partners were alcoholics or drinking too much to begin with, but because they knew that the amount they drank might make their now-live-in partner uncomfortable. If your partner does currently drink more than you're comfortable with that doesn't mean that they're an alcoholic, nor does it mean that they won't willingly drink less once you live together in order to make you feel more comfortable in your shared home. It does, however, mean that you need to have an open conversation about it before moving in together.
posted by asnider at 12:54 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most people don't just down three beers in the space of an hour. You know?

Sure they do. This is why it's important to talk; imposing arbitrary rules leads to the above sentence. That sounds reasonable to the poster, but out of left field to me. There are no universal rules you can use as a shortcut.

Definitely use caution in how you bring this up, though. If you come across as controlling and paranoid, you're only going to me met with defensiveness.
posted by spaltavian at 12:57 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's best to just ask. My husband and I had very different views on alcohol and we just talked about it. In my family we're special occasion/ social drinkers, so it was weird to me that he'd have an evening glass of whiskey on a Tuesday. The first time I asked him about it thinking something must be wrong (stress drinking) or right (celebratory drinking) and it turns out, he just likes whiskey. In the same way that I will buy myself a fancy new tea to try, he'll get a small bottle of some whiskey to try a glass. Now mind you, he's not downing a bottle of whiskey, then I'd be upset, but he does sit down 1-2 times a week with a glass of whiskey for no other reason than the taste. At first it struck me as weird, but now it doesn't bother me.

Now his note taking on oaky vs. sweet vs. burn, that bothers me. Seriously husband, I love you, but I could care less about hearing about whiskey flavors. *grumble grumble*
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 1:19 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am afraid that my partner might drink a lot more when alone at home.

You really, really need to ask yourself why you are thinking along these lines.

If you can point to concrete examples that might be worrying (history of DUIs, personality changes/mood swings, finding booze squirreled away in the linen cabinet), then you may be on to something.

If you can't point to concrete examples, then you may be hypervigilant.

Some assorted thoughts: my brother and I grew up with a severely alcoholic parent. We both have different approaches to alcohol (he is a teetotaler, I am a light-to-moderate drinker), but we are both extremely vigilant to others' usage of alcohol. The thing that I will admit, though, is I sometimes jump to negative conclusions prematurely about other people's alcohol use, because of hypervigilance, and my past. My bro would say the same. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that others grew up differently with alcohol, or grew up in cultural contexts that involve alcohol more regularly with social activities.

Thus, instead of always agreeing with my first, negative conclusions, I'll ask myself the following questions:

1. Does this person appear to be hiding their drinking? Frankly, finding a recycle bin full of beer bottles wouldn't automatically concern me: maybe he saved up a couple week's worth of bottles on the counter before taking them out? Maybe he had the guys over for a game? Maybe he just found a new microbrew he really digs and overindulged a little bit? What would be a much bigger concern is knowing about the microbrew, and then seeing no evidence in the trash. Hiding bottles or disposing of them sneakily is indicative of the paranoid thought process (and shame) associated with problem drinking.

2. Do I find booze in weird places? Not necessarily running into a bottle of beer he forgot in the bathroom once when wandering around before the phone rang, but any caches of alcohol in hidden places, like the linen closet, the toilet tank, the bathroom cabinet, or wherever, is never a good sign.

3. Does this person have to periodically fast from alcohol, and announce it? I am not referring here to religious fasts, medical fasts, or reading the latest Newsweek on the health effects of alcohol, and going "whoa, what if beer leads to cancer?" However, people who don't have problem drinking habits don't really announce when they're not drinking. It's just...what they do. Those who have to loudly proclaim that they are giving up all booze for 30 days, 3 months, just to "see if they can," or to "make their partner happy," or whatever, usually have an underlying problem.

4. Is the person honest about their drinking? Some people drink more than others, but don't hide it. Others are pretty realistic about the effects of drinking (like readily admitting that they drank too much at New Year's, are a little embarrassed and hungover, and might hold off on those cocktails next time, oy). Anyone who seems contradictory is suspect: a friend of mine with a drinking problem would regularly mix for herself, and others, drinks that were easily triples and quadruples. After her dinner parties, guests would report back with how surprised/embarrassed/happy they were with how drunk they got - didn't quite know how it happened after two drinks, guess they must have been strong! She, however, always, always denied that they were more than singles. We were lightweights! We were trying to make her look like a bad host! Instead of admitting the obvious (they were strong, people got fucked up), she always held up a front that there was nothing unusual going on.

If you can't answer those questions of the top of your head, right now, without having to go on a hunt through his trash can, then you might want to consider what hyperviligance/anxiety/trust issues might be impacting your perception of his behavior. If these are really familiar, off-the-bat, then maybe there is an issue here. If you feel like things are borderline, you could always talk to him about it, or talk about your concerns, or your general approach to alcohol.

I guess, I don't know. All I can say is: generally, I jump to negative conclusions quickly, due to my past. In reality, genuine problem drinking comes with a set of really weird behaviors that, once identified, are really obvious. If you talk to him about it, or spend time with him while drinking, and find that he is upfront, not contradictory, and generally not squirrely about his drinking, then I wouldn't be concerned, even if it is more than I, myself, might consume.
posted by vivid postcard at 1:21 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

There's another thing -- the person doesn't have to be a drinker to have a codependent relationship with you. Codependency is more about enmeshment and boundaries than about liquid volume. So it might help to read some books on codependency (I really like The Intimacy Factor by Pia Mellody, suggested to me by a Mefite, but there are many others) and see if your relationship shows *those* signs, rather than if this partner drinks more or less than some predefined standard.
posted by 3491again at 3:52 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

"The situation we are in does not allow for any kind of trial "let's see how this goes" period; when we move in together, it is for good."

No, no, no, no, no. You cannot live life this way or you will end up in one type of abusive relationship or another.... I don't care what your situation is, but the person you are partnered with either needs to respect/live in a way that is corresponding to your values or you need to WALK... whether its a month down the road or years down the road.

You need boundaries- and the quickest way to get this r.i.g.h.t n.o.w. is this: good things don't feel bad. Sure, it can take a while to figure out your feelings, but overall it works, and examining feelings will tell you something. In this case it could be that a) he's not right for you or b) you aren't quite sure what you want.

And get out of your head the concept of "alcoholic" because that is a semantic minefield- there is no, no, no, no actual agreed upon definitions of an alcoholic.
posted by misspony at 4:06 PM on October 12, 2012

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